A few weeks ago, recovering from a sickness bug, I lay on the sofa and dozed in front of the TV all afternoon. Feeling moderately guilty, and somewhat ironically, I woke up to Loose Women discussing the The Sun newspaper headline ‘Tum and Dumb’ about lazy obese people watching TV all day whilst living on benefits. I’m sure that there were more worthy items that both The Sun and Loose Women could be discussing, in fact this was the same day as the Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria, and record sales of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper.
It would appear that “Fat and on benefits” is a currently popular cry from social commenters, mainly those calling for reforms regarding the benefits system. And now David Cameron is jumping on the “fat shaming” bandwagon by suggesting that we remove benefits to obese people who refuse ‘treatment’. Interestingly, he’s not said what treatment he is referring to, and how compatible that is with our fundamental freedom to refuse treatment.
Social commentators have also been inferring that all overweight people will now be entitled to disability related benefits. This simply isn’t the case. Obesity may now be considered a ‘disability’ under employment law, but that doesn’t mean all obese people will qualify for disability related benefits. These benefits are based on a person’s ability to complete normal day-to-day activities because of an underlying medical condition. In this particular example from The Sun, the mother has diabetes and angina – both of these health conditions can impair ones ability to complete normal day-to-day activities. Her health problems have been attributed to weight problems, but both angina and diabetes can also be caused by other complications, although whether they are in this case is unknown.
The overall tone of the article in The Sun blames the two women for their own predicament and questions whether they should be receiving benefits (described as ‘Hand outs’) at all – they are ‘undeserving’ because they have ‘self inflicted’ medical conditions.
This attitude is problematic because it supports the idea that society should deny benefits to people with impairments that are perceived to be self-inflicted, however such a suggestion would not be particularly fair or easy to establish. By this logic, we would end up denying benefits to physically impaired people who had acquired a head injury during a drunken night of stupidity, or people with significant bone disease caused in part by a history of anorexia. Both seem unnecessarily harsh and ridiculously stringent. Interestingly, my Google search for “anorexic /thin/underweight people on benefits” didn’t prove as fruitful as my search for “fat/overweight/ people on benefits” – both are weight related conditions that can cause both permanent or semi permanent impairment and sometimes a reliance on benefits.
Articles that portray fat people as self-inflicted lazy scroungers ignore the intricacies of an endemic modern day health problem. Victimizing disabled people who are obese, or obese people who become disabled through their weight gain, is not a solution.
So what is the solution? Statistically 80% to 95% of people who voluntarily undergo weight loss programs return to their original weight after a few months. So, it is highly unlikely that we can prevent obesity by imposing benefit sanctions that enforce treatment, even if they were legal! Such proposed punitive measures would be far more likely to exacerbate the mental health problems that cause many people to overeat in the first place. As Johann Hari suggests in his article about addiction, causing addicts more stress increases addiction, whereas a less stressful environment decreases addiction. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the mother featured in The Sun newspaper had experienced a series of stressful events in her life – divorce, the loss of a long-term job and relentless verbal abuse because of her weight.
Many scientists believe the problem of obesity requires collective action on a global scale, and that “the size of the impact of unhealthy food on consumer health is comparable to the impact of cigarettes.” If we as a ‘big society’ are really concerned with the health of our nation, we need to adopt a more holistic approach to encouraging weight loss and the promotion of healthier lifestyles. For example, tackling the corporate interests of businesses who promote cheap highly addictive, fatty and sugary foods.
One thing is for certain; harassing and finger pointing at individuals will not resolve this issue.